The last time Spain's national football team won an international competition it took place under the watchful eye of Francisco Franco, the country's fascist dictator.
Forty-four years later, as the squad returned home yesterday to a heroes' welcome in Madrid, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain's Socialist prime minister, was quick to champion the significance of Sunday night's 1-0 European Championship victory over Germany.
"I am the first prime minister of democracy that has experienced the winning of a title like this. My generation deserved to see such a triumph," said the 47-year-old premier whose politics are still determined by a reaction to the Franco years of his childhood.
The victorious team, which was received last night by hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters lining Madrid's central boulevard and main squares, has delivered Spain - and its government - a timely boost, distracting attention from a fast-declining economy and regional tensions.
"Today, the euribor is not at 5.3 per cent," wrote columnist Vicente Lozano in the online version of Expansion, the financial daily, in reference to the rate used to calculate most Spanish mortgages, which has shot up. "Today, inflation is not off the charts," is added in a wishful aside.
Mr Zapatero will be hoping that such euphoria lingers. Tomorrow he has been summoned by parliament to give an account of Spain's rapid economic slowdown after being rounded on by all but his own socialist party. With rising mortgage, food and energy costs battering Spanish households, the country is braced for at least two years of slowing economic growth and climbing jobless rates after a decade-long construction-driven boom.
Commentators have also been quick to claim that Sunday's victory in Vienna has unified a country where regionalist passions run high, and often boil over into violence. Fernando Torres, who scored Spain's goal, described it as a "great victory for a whole country".
Midfielder Cesc Fabregas, one of six squad members from the staunchly autonomous northern region of Catalonia, said the victory transcended the traditionally fierce rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona clubs.
"This was not a victory for Madrid or for Barca. This was a victory for a country and a victory for football."
However, not everyone was behind the national squad. A handful of politicians from Catalonia and the Basque Country, another separatist region, made pointedly neutral comments about the national squad. In Barcelona, the Catalan capital, there were no giant television screens of the type installed in other city squares.
The percentage of televisions tuned in to the match - which peaked at more than 87 per cent in Madrid - was noticeably lower in the Basque country, Catalonia and the Catalan-speaking Balearic islands.
Mr Zapatero, too, had his doubts about the sport's unifying properties, saying he didn't know if the European Championship win actually helped cement trans-regional bonds. But he added: "In any case, I don't think it will do any harm, that's for sure."
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